Starting in the fall, the religious school of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus will restructure its program from three days to two days per week, with an optional third day.
“We have been a three-day-a-week school, with some moderation, up until now,” said Marcia Kagedan, the school’s educational director. The school and the synagogue have been in existence for 55 years.
Each grade from K-7 has an average of 15 students, who hail from Paramus, River Edge, Oradell, Woodcliff Lake, Hillsdale, Washington Township, Emerson, and Closter. Classes in K-2 and 6-7 already are held on two days; that schedule will now extend to grades 3-5.
The change will reduce weekly classroom time to five from six hours, with three hours on Sunday mornings and two on Tuesday afternoons. On Thursdays, optional classes may include Torah study, Jewish film viewing and discussion, cooking, Israeli dance, and Hebrew language.
“I believe we’re the last Conservative school in the area to do this,” said the school’s co-president, Mimi Levin. “We began to realize, based on parent requests, that as much as we would have liked to keep our program at three days, kids have more homework and responsibility than they used to have, and three days was a challenge.”
JCCP’s Rabbi Arthur Weiner said “it was with heavy heart that we made this decision in response to the needs that were articulated to us by members of our community. We put together the best program we could given those needs. Although Jewish education is our priority, we have to find the right balance in staying competitive and attractive to the community.”
In a letter to parents, Kagedan wrote, “We will continue to provide our children with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to promote Jewish identity and pride, to understand and appreciate the meaning of the Torah, and to love and support Israel.”
Dr. Wally Greene, director of Jewish Educational Services at the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, expressed skepticism that this can be attained in five hours a week.
“Jewish literacy, involvement, passion, and commitment are not part-time pursuits,” he said. “If we agree that to produce a semi-literate American citizen takes 12 years, five days a week for six hours, then how can we expect to produce literate Jews in four or five hours a week? Our educators are dedicated and passionate, but you can’t fit a gallon in a shot glass.”
Greene added that “competition for kids’ time is fierce,” and most supplementary school students do not continue their Jewish education past seventh or eighth grade.
Dr. Robert Abramson, director of United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s department of education, acknowledged that the majority of religious schools in its member congregations have gone to a two-day schedule, and that “when you start shrinking hours, you shrink your ability to give the kids the grounding we believe they should have.”
However, he continued, JCCP’s religious school is one of 100 “Framework of Excellence” schools that is required to uphold certain standards in order to retain its special status.
Framework of Excellence schools must offer at least five years of schooling and encourage graduates to attend a Hebrew high school program. Framework schools “have really redistributed rather than downsized instruction time in one of six ways we have suggested,” he said.
Kagedan is hopeful that the revised schedule will translate to more learning. “We have kids coming a bit late and leaving a bit early because they have other activities. Having more hours on Sunday should give us more real minutes to work with,” she said.
When she announced the change in schedule at a recent parent meeting, close to half those present showed interest in the third-day option. Equally well received was the idea of an hour-long Sunday enrichment program for children in kindergarten to second grade.
JCCP also offers a free monthly Candle Club for pre-kindergartners, where children learn about upcoming holidays. The next program will be on March 1 at 9:45 a.m., focusing on Purim.